This piece was originally published in The Hill.
One of my favorite breakfast foods when I was a kid, and even now, was pancakes. My mom made hers extra buttery with crispy edges and a pat of butter that would soak through. And of course you had to have rich dark syrup cascading down the sides. A delightful sticky mess to accompany Saturday morning cartoons.
The mad men and women of marketing have done their jobs, because even to this day when I think of pancakes and syrup I automatically picture Aunt Jemima. We had both the syrup and the pancake mix. When my parents bought the knockoff version, we were convinced that we could tell the difference.
It wasn’t until I got to college and earned my degree in Anthropology and Africana Studies that I had learned how problematic the Aunt Jemima figure was. Without taking you down the history of the de-sexualized, “happy slave” narrative that Aunt Jemima hearkens to, understand that Aunt Jemima has been used as a pejorative against Black women for decades.
With this knowledge, let’s discuss a recent transgression by Luray mayor Barry Presgraves, who posted on Facebook, “Joe Biden has just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick."
Of course, the response was swift. “We will not tolerate racist or sexist tropes consistently utilized in an effort to undermine our power,” Black women leaders said in an open letter with over 1,000 signatures.
“I am writing to strongly urge you to resign over a racist comment you made on Facebook. The comment you posted has a type of humor that has not been appropriate or funny in my lifetime or yours,” Leah Pence, a Luray Councilwoman, wrote to Presgraves.
We should have made the universal agreement that racism and sexism disguised as jokes or through coded language don't serve a purpose long ago — they never served a purpose in the first place. Women, especially women of color, have contributed greatly to this country and we should find it intolerable that we use any kind of language that suggests otherwise.
“Black women are many things. We are business executives, political strategists and elected officials, philanthropists, and activists. We are health and wellness practitioners. We are entertainers and faith leaders. We are wives, mothers, daughters, educators, and students. We set and shift culture. We build power and we are powerful,” the open letter states.
More than half of the United States population identifies as female and yet we only make up 23 percent of Congress and 29 percent of state legislatures. When it comes to women of color, we represent only 9 percent of Congress. And that’s an increase from 2018. Despite our small but growing presence in government, our voices matter because our lives matter. The history of the United States has seen the subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities as the cost of doing business building our nation. Moving forward from the past means reconciling with its vestiges — that includes the propensity to use coded language and racism disguised as jokes.
A cursory Google search will tell you that Aunt Jemima was never a stand-up comedian. So what exactly about the reference would be considered humorous? The “happy slave” narrative only worked to reinforce stereotypes that Black Americans were docile, submissive, sexless, and needed to have overseers. The product, created 25 years after the end of enslavement, still utilized the “mammy” image—a stereotype that has deleterious effects on Black women, especially Black candidates, because it doesn’t give them the chance to be judged on their merits but rather on how well they can combat these negative tropes. Only just this summer did Quaker Oats announce it will be ending the Aunt Jemima brand and logo.
Former Vice President Joe Biden committed to selecting a woman as Vice President. If you can recall a time when there were six women running for president, you’ll remember that all of them faced similar scrutiny — likability, too much ambition, facial expressions, wardrobe, and more. When compounded with race, the bar for perfection in female candidates is raised even higher.
When pressed about his racist comment further, Mayor Presgraves responded, “I think people have gone overboard on this ... It's an election year." The thing about gaslighting is that it’s not relegated to relationships. Gaslighting can happen where individuals are spotlighted for their racist and sexist views and rather than own up to it, they double down, they say it isn’t a big deal.
To reduce possibly the first African American woman to run as the vice presidential nominee to a sanitized retelling of enslaved women attempts to strip her of any and all potential power. In the same way powerful women have always been reduced to their hair, fashion, figure and faces. These stereotypes work against any advancement we can make as women in being fairly represented.
With more women in office, emphasis on legislative action and policy that is dedicated to improving communities increases. But, before we can get there, racist language disguised as jokes must be excised from our lexicon. Fair and equitable representation is no laughing matter.